The Times Manipulates the Climate Science Scandal Data

If you were only to read the New York Timeslatest article on the most recent Climate Change scandal first reported by the Mail and the Daily Mail, you would never know that there was any scandal to speak of in the first place. Headline: “No Data Manipulation in 2015 Climate Study, Researchers Say.” Well, not all researchers. The background of the data manipulation story revolves around accusations made by David Bates, a recently retired scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Among his several accusations is that NOAA “rushed to publish a landmark paper that exaggerated global warming and was timed to influence the historic Paris agreement on climate change,” a paper which would have been welcomed with open arms by the Obama administration. On February 4, Bates wrote a lengthy blog post at his website detailing the accusations. Here is a brief list of some of the charges:

1. Climate scientist, Tom Karl, failed to archive the land temperature data set and thus also failed to “follow the policy of his own Agency [and] the guidelines in Science magazine for dataset archival and documentation.”

2. The authors also chose to “use a 90% confidence threshold for evaluating the statistical significance of surface temperature trends, instead of the standard for significance of 95%,” and according to Bates, the authors failed to give a justification for this when pressed.

3. Karl routinely “had his ‘thumb on the scale’ -- in the documentation, scientific choices, and release of datasets -- in an effort to discredit the notion of a global warming hiatus and rush to time the publication of the paper to influence national and international deliberations on climate policy.” Bates adds, “[a] NOAA NCEI supervisor remarked how it was eye-opening to watch Karl work the co-authors, mostly subtly but sometimes not, pushing choices to emphasize warming.”

4. Experimental datasets were used that were not run through operational readiness review (ORR) and were not archived.

To sum up, the “data manipulation,” as characterize by the Mail, consisted in not following proper protocols, selecting certain data sets which had not been properly analyzed, and manipulating scientific methodology with a political and not purely scientific end.

Is Bates right? It’s far too early to tell if the apparent rush to publish compromised the actual conclusions reached from the date, but Bates’ accusations certainly raise questions worth pursuing. Yet this is not how the Times‘ Henry Fountain sees matters in his slanted article. It is not a good sign that he launches into the body of the text with a not so subtle ad hominem attack on the original author:

Mr. Rose, who has made climate-related claims in the past that did not hold up to scrutiny, said a “high-level whistle-blower,” John J. Bates, a recently retired scientist at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, had told him that the agency “breached its own rules on scientific integrity” in publishing the study in June 2015.

What are the climate-related claims that Mr. Rose made that did not hold up to scrutiny? In a previous article for the Daily Mail Rose avers that reported record high temperatures in 2016 “may” be caused by El Niño and not human produced carbon emissions. “This means it is possible that by some yardsticks, 2016 will be declared as hot as 2015 or even slightly hotter -- because El Niño did not vanish until the middle of the year.” That it is “possible by some yardstick” that 2016 was hotter than 2015 due in part to El Niño is about as modest a claim as there is. Surely it is possible. To show that this is false one would have to prove that it is not only unlikely, but impossible! And science is not in the business of proving the impossible.

What is Fountain’s evidence against Rose’s modest claim? He links to another New York Times article as evidence. Therein it is noted that reporters such as Rose have claimed “El Niño, and not climate change, was responsible for the record heat.” On the contrary, “scientists said that while the recent El Niño did contribute to the record warmth, climate change played a major role, too.” Yet notice that Rose never denied that climate change did not play a major role in the (alleged) record temperature. His claim was only that El Niño may have played a role such that there might not have been a record temperature in its absence.

Fountain’s case now turns to actual scientists who have raised objections to Bates’ contentions.

In a post on the blog of the Irish Climate Analysis and Research Units at Maynooth University, Peter Thorne, who worked on the data but left NOAA before work began on the paper itself, disputed much of what Dr. Bates said.

Dr. Bates, Dr. Thorne wrote, was not involved in the data work and had misrepresented “the processes that actually occurred.” Dr. Thorne also disputed the idea that Dr. Karl had his “thumb on the scale.” Dr. Karl only used the data -- he was not personally involved in the refinements, Dr. Thorne wrote.

How confident should the reader be about the remarks made by a scientist who admittedly left before work on the paper began itself? More importantly, in his extended commentary on the blog linked to above, Thorne does not address the archiving issue, leaving the reader to wonder about the accusation made to rush the paper for the Paris agreement.

Fountain next notes that another scientist, Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, also disputes the manipulation of data claim. The results of another paper, he says, “strongly suggest that NOAA got it right and that we have been underestimating ocean warming in recent years.” However, Bates’ main contention is not that in the final analysis the NOAA got it wrong. For all he knows, the paper’s conclusion is correct. Rather, the claim is that the process appeared to be rushed suggesting that there were other motivations at work besides an undefiled desire for the truth.

Finally, Fountain ends with the article suggesting that Bates himself is backtracking on his earlier remarks.

In an interview on Monday with E&E News, Dr. Bates appeared to distance himself from some of what he wrote in the blog post, and from the way his criticisms were portrayed in the Mail on Sunday article.

“The issue here is not an issue of tampering with data,” he said, “but rather really of timing of a release of a paper that had not properly disclosed everything it was.”

If Bates is indeed distancing himself from his earlier claims that is a startling new twist. Moreover, if he is disavowing his earlier claims, the article could have been much shorter. Is he? What is reported on the E&E News website provides no further context. Taken in isolation it suggests no such thing. Bates says that there was no “tampering with data,” but he never claimed that data was tampered with in the first place. Tampering with data includes erasing and replacing numbers, a direct manipulation of data itself. Instead he claimed that the process of selecting the data did not follow standard protocol and appeared rushed. A more accurate statement would have been that Bates clarified that the data manipulation involved no tampering but nonetheless remains suspect. He adds at the end of the E&E News,

"You really have to provide the most objective view and let the policymakers decide from their role," Bates said. "I'm getting much more wary of scientists growing into too much advocacy. I think there is certainly a role there, and yet people have to really examine themselves for their own bias and be careful about that."

To that we might add that journalists also need to provide the most objective views. If we truly value science, one of the worst things that we can do is let biased journalists manipulate “the data” that the average voter relies on to inform his opinions.

Tully Borland is a philosophy professor at Ouachita Baptist University and blogs at TulliusEst.

If you experience technical problems, please write to